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Showing 1-4 of 4 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 15 reviews
on November 2, 2011
As I write this thirteenth review, the star-ratings are stretched out like I've never seen them anywhere else: every rating from one to five coming from two or three readers apiece. A spread as hard to understand as Armantrout's most confusing poetry. Let's look at some specifics.

Language poetry is poetry that allows itself to include nonsense, passages that don't mean anything coherent or paraphrasable. This goes back to "hey nonny" in the old Elizabethan songs, and comes right up to rock band names like Jefferson Airplane or The Grateful Dead. It happens, by accident or on purpose, in very beloved modern poets like Dylan Thomas. Still, some people are against it on principle. Those people can't be talked to, but they're politically active, hence some of the one- and two-star reviews. Let them go.

Opening at random to page 30, where poets tend to put their not quite top stuff, I find the poem "Bonded." The poem is divided into six short sections. The sixth is:

of strangers' headlights
tracing the curve at dusk

is inexplicable.

That makes perfect sense, I've experienced the pathos myself, I agree it's inexplicable, and I'm glad someone else saw it and wrote a poem about it. I also think that in a nonsense context, sections that (so to speak) leap into meaning like this feel especially good and interesting. I like the way she doesn't say "The pathos," but just "Pathos," making the pathos stand out especially sharply because losing "the" makes the sentence a tiny bit ungrammatical, and because it gives "Pathos" a line of its own. This is not a new technique (she's known to have learned from Williams and Creeley, and I've listened to amateur poets who drive me crazy leaving out "the" all over the place) but it works well here.

A previous section of "Bonded" reads:

A want,
conceived as illusory

is said

to underlie the real,
underwrite matter.

To me, this is idealistic nonsense, but I like the feel of it. It suggests that human need creates the universe, an idea I especially hate, because I'm a skeptic. But I like how it's expressed here. I like the way some universal need can also be said to be an illusion (universal need certainly IS an illusion) AND a piece of rhetoric, and I like the idea that this illusion "underlies," doesn't show itself, like the elephant the earth rests on, another idea I don't believe in and still like, still find charming. I like the phrase "underwrite matter," the idea that material things need to be underwritten like a loan -- as if the world itself were just loaned to us, another idea I don't agree with, but hey, there is death.

You can find ideas like these in various idealistic philosophers, but not in so short a space, and not put forward so gently. Because language poetry is constantly interrupted by nonsense, you don't have to believe anything in it, and so you're in a special place, where the theories you feel don't make sense can still show whatever magic they may have in them -- and all without hurting anybody. Idealistic ideas like these dominated the nineteenth century, and did a lot of harm. In this section, the same ideas seem dreamy and almost helpful -- and they do bring us up against death, one of humanity's few certain truths.

The following section reads:

A man tells a camera
he prefers "lady-boys"
because they can't fake orgasm.

That's as easy to understand as a punch in the face. Where does it fit in with how you feel about sex and love? Isn't that an interesting question?

The next section reads:

In the updraft
the particulate
is beside itself.

That's nonsense pure and simple. Or ... is it saying we go into a noisy club, and they've got some sparkles blowing in an updraft, and that's exciting; the particles look so nervous and afraid? And nervous and afraid is part of the fun of going out to raves and things like that? Or is she pointing out that glitz, trendy decoration, is not just decoration, but also something crazy, scary and scared? Does she mean ordinary dust particles, caught in an updraft, catch the light and shine like glitzy ornaments, one identical seeming particle next to another? Or is the section nonsense pure and simple just as I said to begin with?

When you get thoughts or feelings like this from pure nonsense, then it's GOOD pure nonsense, fun pure nonsense, admirable pure nonsense. Of course you might be kidding yourself, like a child playing with blocks and pretending she's raising a tower to the sky -- but is that a terrible or unhappy child? Should we take her blocks away?

----- -----

I give the book four stars instead of five because I'm not willing to say that pieces of glitz like this are life-changing. But they're fun and interesting, and a lot of poets spend a lot of time reading and writing them. Most of them know they're experimenting with language itself, and language is at least a four-star thing.
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on June 9, 2011
There are a few things to like in these poems and a few things that leave me puzzled and unable to get an accurate glimpse inside Rae's mind, or my own for that matter. In the abstract, sparse stanzas, I was challenged to form an image and take away my own experience. I may have been looking at a painting, but the light was wavering, the image cloudy. It is not obvious at first what direction a poem has taken or what the inspiration may have been.

Divided into two sections, titled "Versed" and "Dark Matter", this collection feels like a snapshot where random quips are thought and written down. Unlike John Haines, whose poems are nature based, with a simple form where each word has a purpose, Rae's are about the everyday life, headlines and news flashes across the Internet. The moments that occur and the feeling that follows, almost the knee-jerk reaction, are quick, raw, and unorganized.

A few poems are direct commentaries on pop culture (Anna Nicole Smith, Iron Man) and the way social media specifically, and technology in general are consuming and taking over our lives, trading the real for the digital.

Overlaying this collection is Rae's experience with cancer, and an attempt to seek out and bring to light the unknown and invisible, the dark matter.

Favorite stanza, from "Missing Persons", page 89:

"A thin old man in blue jeans,
back arched, grimaces
at the freezer compartment."

The use of punctuation, in particular periods, is interesting. Most of the poems, especially in the first section "Versed" do not end with one, even when the proceeding stanzas do. The last stanza does not. I have not figured out why, or the purpose, or even a pattern. I thought maybe is it is a convention where the previous poem ends, but as an overall flow continues with the next poem's title or first stanza. Reading the poems consecutively with this in mind, it is not consistent enough to carry through the entire book.

Some notable poems: "Amplification", "Heaven", "Just", "Dark Matter", and "Missing Persons", "Birth Order".

Another interesting fragment of each piece is the title, which the majority of them a single word. Over the years I have also favored a shorter title. It gives little away to the reader and lessens the preconceived notion they may have about a poems topic or direction. In my recent poems, I have gone with numbers and/or colors, matching what Jackson Pollock decided to do in his later life and paintings.

Rae's poems are sparse in their words, creating images not obvious at first. Each word serves as a guide, a sign-post if you will. Where I was being led, I do not know. Overall, I felt the effort was lacking and the poems suffered from oversimplification at the hands of a decision to be abstract for its own sake, and a form and writing convention that made no sense.
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on August 14, 2015
Sometimes Rae Armantrout does hit a stroke of genius, but often times I feel as though she gets a bit too caught up in her own wordplay. Indeed, sometimes it is quite clever, but other times it simply comes off as pretentious. With that said Rae Armantrout is an excellent poet, and even though this may not be her best book she does have some great collections of poetry out there.
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on July 21, 2016
Thin poems.
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